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Multiple power line projects causing sparks to fly

The Wabash Valley is becoming tangled in a slew of power line projects, many drawing strong opposition in east central Illinois.

Two transmission line projects – one still in the planning stage – would cross Illinois and stop in the Wabash Valley near Terre Haute. A third is Duke Energy’s project to move electric power through western Vigo County.

Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois has received permission from the Illinois Commerce Commission to build a $1.1 billion, 400-mile transmission line from eastern Missouri, through Illinois, to western Vigo County. The 345,000-volt line will tie into the Sugar Creek Substation jointly owned by Duke Energy and Northern Indiana Public Service Co.

The project should be ready for operation by the fourth quarter of 2019, said Leigh Morris, senior communications associate for Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois.

“We are in the real estate acquisition phase” of the project, Morris said. The company will need to obtain thousands of easements in Illinois, he said.

“We don’t push that process fast,” Morris said. “It has to move at its own deliberate pace.”

But several landowners in Edgar County, where the lines will cross, are strongly opposed to the project. Last year, the Edgar County Board sent a letter to Ameren Transmission expressing its official opposition to the project in that county.

“I’m not going to give [an easement] to them,” said Jack Hoffman, a property owner in rural Edgar County whose land is on the approved route. “I’m going to make them take it.”

For Ameren to “take” an easement using eminent domain, would require the permission of the Illinois Commerce Commission, Morris said. It can be requested only after “good faith” negotiations have taken place, he said.

“Eminent domain is the last thing we want to do,” Morris said. The company wants easements to be the result of mutually beneficial agreements, he said. Historically, eminent domain is “rarely used,” he added.

Tom Ogle, another Edgar Countian, also opposes the transmission lines, which he said will cross his property. He and Hoffman are part of a lawsuit involving several landowners united against the project.

“We have very strong community support on this,” Ogle said, noting contributions to the group’s legal fees are even coming from people whose property is not on the route. When asked whether they could imagine ever reaching a mutual agreement with Ameren Transmission Co. to place lines anywhere on their property, both said no.

“I want no dealing with them,” Ogle said. He objected to the short time period he said he was given to appeal the use of his property. He also points to the homes of his neighbors he said will have power lines near them. In addition to property value considerations, Hoffman said he has health concerns, citing the often-debated belief that electromagnetic fields from high-voltage power lines cause human illness.

Morris said Ameren Transmission Co. wants concerned landowners to communicate with the company, which will work with them to place the poles in areas that are mutually agreeable, he said.

“Talk with us,” Morris said. “We’re not the bad guy.”

The Illinois Rivers project does not involve creating electrical power, just transporting it, Morris said. The main reason for it is the harvesting of abundant wind energy out west and bringing it east, he said. Other reasons for the project include the need to improve the electricity grid and increase its capacity, he said. Illinois law mandates 25 percent of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2025, he noted.

Grain Belt Express

Grain Belt Express is a second power line project slated to cross Illinois; however, that project has not been approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission and is much earlier in its development.

“Right now, we’re working to identify the route,” said Allison Smith, an associate with Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners, which is behind the Grain Belt project.

Clean Line hosted a series of public meetings last week across Illinois, beginning Monday in Martinsville. Two more rounds of meetings are planned, a company official said.

The Grain Belt project is designed to bring electricity generated on western Kansas wind farms across Missouri and Illinois to Indiana and beyond. The $2 billion project will reduce wholesale electricity costs in Illinois, said Mark Lawlor, director of development for Clean Line Energy Partners.

Opponents of the Grain Belt project are easy to find in Illinois, and some, such as Mary Mauch, have experience with Clean Line Energy Partners from another transmission line project known as Rock Island Clean Line, which is in northern Illinois and Iowa.

“Local landowners [in Clark County, Ill.] are caught like a deer in the headlights,” by the Grain Belt project, Mauch said in a telephone interview Friday. Nevertheless, several landowners are organizing against the project, she said. In fact, as Grain Belt Express has conducted its public meetings, opposition has grown “exponentially,” she said.

“It’s not good for anybody,” Mauch said of the project. The corporate ownership of Clean Line is a maze of LLCs and the company’s public meetings have been well-orchestrated public relations events, she said.

Like the Ameren Illinois project, the Grain Belt project will work with landowners to avoid use of eminent domain, Lawlor said. Typically, more than 90 percent of easements are obtained voluntarily, he said.

Representatives of Illinois Rivers and the Grain Belt project said they will use “mono poles” to carry the electricity, not large “lattice style” towers. However, Mauch questioned that assertion for the Grain Belt project. She also said farmers would be liable to damage to the power poles on their fields.

“We cannot allow this to go forward,” Mauch said.